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King County Prosecutor
Dan Satterberg

Just the Facts: The Juvenile Justice System


As state legislators gathered in Olympia in January, several law makers proposed a bill that would call for a systemic review of our juvenile justice system. 180 Program and Truancy Programs


Just the Facts: The Juvenile Justice System

As state legislators gathered in Olympia in January, several law makers proposed a bill that would call for a systemic review of our juvenile justice system. Senate Bill 6390 would create a statewide task force to conduct an in-depth examination of all aspects of the system we have designed to hold children under 18 years of age accountable for their criminal conduct. We support a review of our system – the last major legislation impacting juvenile law was 17 years ago – but it is important to understand how far we have already come in the use of our juvenile court to deliver rehabilitative services, and how dramatic a reduction in caseloads that we have seen statewide.

Caseloads Down 50 Percent; Only 8 Percent of Cases Go To JRA

Widespread change has already come to our juvenile justice system over the past decade. In 2003, Washington State Juvenile Courts ordered 15,313 “dispositions” (a juvenile court term used for criminal sentences). In 2013, those same courts entered 7,685 dispositions against juvenile offenders. That is a 50 percent drop in criminal sentences imposed on juvenile offenders in ten years. Although juvenile offenders are charged with crimes under the same state laws as adults, the courts, defense attorneys and prosecutors recognize that the vast majority of juveniles are first-time offenders who may be at a crossroads in their young lives. In fact, last year, eighty percent of all juveniles in the system were first-time offenders.

figure_2Moreover, 96 percent of offenses charged in juvenile court are non-violent offenses. At sentencing, 92 percent of all juveniles are given “local sanctions,” meaning they serve their sentence in the county where they live, as opposed to the 8 percent of offenders who are sent to the State Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration (JRA) for a more extended sentence where more intensive rehabilitative services are available. As a result, the vast majority of juvenile offenders remain in the community where they first ran into trouble with the law. Because they will remain in their homes, schools and communities, prosecutors and courts have sought new solutions and intervention strategies to be applied locally.

The Approach by Prosecutors is Changing

Although 1,000 juveniles were sentenced in 2013 in King County, significantly more youth were diverted from the formal justice system into community-based programs. One such program is the King County Prosecutor Office’s 180 Program, which is designed to reach youth who are facing their first or second low-level misdemeanor offense. Instead of filing charges against offenders in Juvenile Court, assigning them public defenders, and waiting for the court system to hear their case, the Prosecutor’s Office (PAO) invites them to participate in a half-day workshop sponsored by community members. The youth also engage in small group exercises where they talk about the issues affecting them and receive personal direction on how to make a change in their lives. If the child engages in the workshop and completes the curriculum, they are not charged with the misdemeanor. The 180 Program is fast, free, and very personal. For a King County TV profile of the 180 Program, go here:

Click here to watch video

Juvenile Drug Court and Alternatives

Prosecutors have also increased the use of Juvenile Disposition Alternatives, including treatment options for juveniles with drug addictions and mental health issues. Since 2000, Prosecutors have also steered scores of cases into the Juvenile Drug Court, where a youth struggling with substance abuse issues can complete treatment and programing in order to avoid a criminal conviction.

In addition to programs such as 180, the use of disposition alternatives and Drug Court, the PAO has also recast its staffing model at Juvenile Court. In the past, young deputy prosecutors in their first year out of law school gained trial experience while handling hundreds of juvenile cases ranging from minor misdemeanors to violent felonies.

Today, the Juvenile Court deputy prosecutors are more experienced and handle a smaller number of cases that are much more complex in nature, often involving sex offenses, domestic violence, and undiagnosed mental illness. Our first instinct is to offer an outcome that helps the youth overcome the hurdles in their lives that led to criminal conduct. This more holistic approach recognizes the fact that almost every single juvenile who is prosecuted will at some point return to the community, with the chance to succeed or reoffend.

Violent Crimes Require a Serious Response

Despite the sustained effort to find alternative outcomes for juvenile offenders, prosecutors must still protect the public in the case of violent offenders. In 2013, there were 376 violent crimes charged across the state in Juvenile Court. Of those, only eight were for serious violent offenses, including murder, assault in the first degree and violent rape. However, prosecutors must also sometimes charge juveniles as adults because the crimes alleged are so serious.

nonviolentIn King County, the PAO also charges approximately 20 to 30 cases a year in which juvenile offenders aged 16-17 are accused of crimes so serious that state law requires they be tried as adults. Known as “automatic-adult jurisdiction” cases, the matters are moved to adult court without a “decline” hearing in juvenile court.

Juvenile Court jurisdiction ends automatically at age 21, which can make the juvenile court an inadequate response for extremely violent youth. Recent examples of “automatic-adult jurisdiction” cases include a 16-year-old offender who attempted to violently sexually assault two women who were strangers to him on separate occasions, and a 17-year-old (just two months shy of 18) who drove to his girlfriend’s house and opened fire with a 9 mm handgun. The girlfriend, and three other bystanders including her sister and an 11-day-old baby, narrowly avoided serious injury or death.

Important Challenges to Address

Despite the dynamic changes occurring within the juvenile justice system, challenges still remain. While there has been a 50 percent drop in convictions, racial disproportionality in the conviction rate, particularly for African American males, has actually increased slightly. As a result, African American males are 4.5 times more likely to receive a juvenile disposition than their population representation. Programs like the 180 Program aim to impact this persistent problem in the system.

Truancy also remains a major stumbling block to helping juveniles avoid the criminal justice system. Statistics show that a high school drop-out is 5 times more likely to go to prison as an adult than someone who earns a high school diploma. The PAO is trying to break this cycle by engaging with truant middle and high school children and their parents, to get back in school through our innovative workshop program. Last year we reached more than 1200 students who were in danger of dropping out, and worked with school district representatives from all over King County to re-engage the young people with their educational responsibilities and opportunities.

Juvenile Court is a place where we still work toward rehabilitation. We believe that children who make mistakes should have the chance to rebound from those youthful mistakes and maintain all options for a successful adulthood. Our deputy prosecutors in the King County Prosecutor’s Office work every day to find the proper balance between rehabilitation for juveniles and public safety.

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